The project I’m working on while in Antarctica will examine the intersections between humanity and landscape, which will shape the concerns of this blog.
I’ve spent the past week on the south island of New Zealand—a few nights in Christchurch and a few more in Wanaka. This is only the third time I’ve flown internationally, so the experience is still a bit like time travel to me—you board this tight space with a bunch of strangers who are in the midsts of their own stories, fall into a surreal sleep (if you’re lucky), and wake up in a different landscape and season (it is late spring here).
When I talk about landscape, I’m interested in both physical spaces and their histories and ecosystems, and mental landscapes—how we imagine, talk about, and construct certain places.
New Zealand is a place that occupies a lot of space in the American imagination. It is especially a pastoral landscape to us and a place of fantasy. LotRs was filmed here. My partner and I hiked and bouldered around Castle Hill, near the setting of a battle scene in the 2005 film “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
There is something powerful about the fact that there will always be places that I’ve never been, no matter how much I get to travel. I think one reason we need (an awareness of) landscape or place is so that we are humbled and de-centered.
What does it mean to go to far-flung places?
And isn’t remoteness always just a matter of perspective?
When I got out of the airport, I found myself leaning toward people as they spoke, not because I could not understand what they were saying, but because I was trying to catch some essential details that would decode the culture for me.
I won’t make any broad assumptions about the New Zealand people or the landscape because, just like the people and landscape of the United States, they can’t be summarized. They can be considered for their intricacies. I can try to portray some details for you, some snapshots of what I’ve encountered.
In a museum, people often go up close to a painting and try to see the brushstrokes and then step back and look at it more holistically. I think it might be a bit like that.
Which brings me to the topic of ambiguity…I’m a writer, primarily a poet, but recently I’ve returned to writing fiction, which is how I began as a writer when I was a child.
I’ve been thinking a lot about endings.
I think the closure and conclusions we find in life are mostly self-constructed. I’m much more interested in stories that portray how emotionally mixed and unresolved most relationships and situations are.
My partner and I travel well together but we have different approaches. One thing I’m learning from him is the value in not having an itinerary and letting an experience unfold. We also look to different sources for answers to our questions. He wants to visit a natural history museum of New Zealand. He longs for perspective through an understanding of the geology, how the earth has changed and taken shape, and the things that have lived here.
I’ve been thinking about ways to mentally enter a landscape, ways to begin contemplating it. A natural history is one lens. A way we’ve tried to understand this place is by going out into it. We rented a car and have spent many hours navigating these narrow, winding roads. As we moved from Christchurch to Tekapo to Wanaka, we were able to begin to witness how the landscape changed, from ocean to arid valleys to high mountains and glacial lakes to lush hillsides.
Another way to grapple with or explore a landscape is by passing not through it but beneath it. Near Castle Hill, we went to Cave Stream near the Broken River. It is a 594 m cave that you can walk through with the right gear. According to the New Zealand Department of Conservation:
Evidence of Māori occupation in the Cave Stream area includes rock-art, artefacts and signs of seasonal camps.
On the ridge above the reserve an old Māori backpack was found in a small rock shelter. It is made from flax, with a wooden frame, and has broad straps. Intricately woven flax over the frame could stretch in both directions to accommodate the pack’s contents. Finding this pack confirmed traditional knowledge that Māori used packs, similar to the modern day pack, for carrying loads. The pack is estimated to be 500 years old and can be seen in the Canterbury Museum.
After wading through waist-deep, freezing cold water, to enter the cave, we walked upstream for half an hour. Occasionally, I’d turn off my headlamp and feel suspending in darkness.
You can also look up to get a sense of where you are. Near Tekapo, we drove up to the Mount John Observatory. Unfortunately, this was during the day time. But night-sky viewing here is apparently spectacular.
It is hard to develop a lexicon around landscape because it can be so complex and it is hard to capture awe. We can’t know or say everything about any one thing, but that doesn’t make the act of wondering not worthwhile. I think of the Annie Dillard quote from her essay “Seeing”:
What I see sets me swaying. Size and distance and the sudden swelling of meanings confuse me, bowl me over.
The next time you hear from me, I will be exploring a landscape even more remote and out of my context. Looking forward to sharing my process, of seeking understanding, and of being humbled by the Antarctic environment.